Beautiful game reveals ugly reality of racism in Brazil

A 'We are Equal' campaign before the World Cup will do little for black people struggling in a country where discrimination is rife

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 1:51am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 11:24am

It was just a regular evening of monkey noises and racial slurs for Brazilian soccer referee Marcio Chagas. Then he left to go home.

As he entered the parking lot after overseeing the March 6 state championship game in Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil's south, the black physical-education teacher found his tormentors had vandalised his car and piled bananas on the windshield. One was inserted into the exhaust pipe.

"I felt offended, like I'd been the victim of violence," Chagas, 37, said by telephone from his home in Porto Alegre.

"It was a cowardly act because I couldn't defend myself. The jeering is normal. This kind of action was new for me."

Brazilians [say] Brazil is a racial democracy: That’s just a myth

Racism in soccer came to the fore over the past month when Brazilian defender Daniel Alves ate a banana thrown at him by a fan while playing for Barcelona in the Spanish league. While the incident caused an uproar back home in Brazil, the outpouring of support masked how far the World Cup host has to go to eliminate prejudice in the country with the largest black population in the world after Nigeria.

Acts of racism in soccer stadiums had tarnished the image of tolerance that the government was trying to portray, according to Jorge da Silva, a political science professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro.

"Brazilians are used to saying that Brazil is a racial democracy: That's just a myth," da Silva said. "If you go to an elegant shopping centre you won't find black people there, not even working. If you board a plane in Brazil you will not see black people working, maybe one or two, let alone as passengers."

In a country whose most famous person is black soccer icon Pele, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is planning to use this month's World Cup, played in 12 new and refurbished stadiums across the country, to promote the anti-racism message. An advertisement currently on Brazilian television has the following tagline: "The cup of cups without racism."

You don’t see black people writing for newspapers or directing [firms]

"Such a multicultural country, where all of the world's races may be found, provides the possibility for interventions against racism and discrimination," Rousseff said in January after meeting Sepp Blatter, president of soccer governing body Fifa.

Blatter said in an interview posted online by Fifa on Saturday that he would ask member associations to ratify tougher rules against racist behaviour at a meeting in Sao Paulo next week.

In 2011, Brazil's census showed for the first time its population was majority black and mixed race, with 51 per cent declaring themselves as such.

Not a single chief executive officer of a company listed on Brazil's main stock-exchange index is black. Black workers earn about half the average 1,914 reais (HK$6,622) per month their white counterparts get, according to statistics institute IBGE.

Racism was designated a crime in Brazil in 1988. Luiza Bairros, the only black minister in Rousseff's cabinet of 39, said the law had changed very little, with very few prosecutions, allowing people to act with impunity.

"Government institutions reproduce the same standard of invisibility of blacks that you encounter in the rest of society," said Bairros - minister for the promotion of racial equality, a post created in 2003 - last month.

"You don't see black people writing for newspapers or directing companies, so it's more difficult to convince voters to put them into office."

Black senior officials like Joaquim Barbosa, the outgoing chief justice of Brazil's Supreme Court, remain rare, prompting quotas to be introduced. In the country's wildly popular soap operas, stars are almost always white. Just 12 per cent of the cast of the country's current prime-time television favourite, Em Familia, is black or mixed race.

Determining who is black isn't easy.

European settlers, mainly from Portugal, brought almost 5 million slaves to the country between 1502 and 1867, almost half of all Africans entering the new world and 10 times the number headed to the US. Interracial marriage was common and an official policy of "whitening" the population by inviting Europeans to the country until the middle of the 20th century has meant there are a more than 100 definitions of skin colour, according to a government survey.

In a case at the University of Brasilia, identical twins in 2007 applied for entry as part of a quota system at the institution. Only one was deemed black.

Brazil's racial mix used to be more visible in soccer stadiums, where low ticket prices meant even the poorest, mainly black, members of society could attend games. With the advent of new stadiums, including the dozen for the World Cup costing more than 8 billion reais, that's being lost as prices rise.

Blacks and mixed-race Brazilians made up 53 per cent of the population in 2012, yet only 16 per cent of the richest 1 per cent, according to IBGE, the statistics institute.

During Brazil's 3-0 win over Spain in last year's Confederations Cup final, the overwhelming majority of fans in Rio's 74,698-seat Maracana were white. The only black faces were among the players on the field and the cleaners in the bathrooms, said da Silva.

"The price of tickets has created an economic problem and blacks don't have the economic level of whites in Brazilian society yet," said Toninho Nascimento, the sports ministry's national secretary for soccer.

On the field, black players, coaches and referees are now helping highlight the divide.

Arouca, a midfielder with Pele's former team Santos, was called a monkey by fans as he gave a sideline interview in March. A month earlier, Tinga, a midfielder who plays for Belo Horizonte team Cruzeiro, was racially abused while playing a game in Peru.

The case made national headlines, with Brazilian newspapers expressing shock and anger at the treatment. Tinga's response was to point to problems at home.

"In Brazil we talk about equality, but we hide our prejudice," he said. "We pretend that everyone is equal."

Since the incidents, Brazil's soccer federation started a campaign against racism called Somos Iguais, or "We Are Equal". Rousseff said she wanted to turn the World Cup into "a global marker against racism". A player from the Brazilian national team will read an anti-racism message before the June 12 tournament opener against Croatia. In previous competitions, such messages have been read out by team captains after they enter the field.

Chagas, the now-former referee from Rio Grande do Sul, is hoping the tournament will be a turning point even though it will be too late for him. The abuse pushed him to quit officiating.

"I hope during the World Cup people will have better control, to not act in an aggressive, prejudiced way," Chagas said. "The eyes of the world will be on Brazil, and it would be a shame if something like this were to happen."